Sheep Among the Wolves
It may seem these days, that the anti-religion forces are on a roll. They are, more and more, attempting to use the law courts to do what they have been unable to do in the court of public opinion. No one is immune to their efforts to eliminate God from the public square. As is always the case with such efforts, they are also trying to change the language in order to validate their arguments. For example, you may have heard the term ‘freedom to worship’ being used in some recent political statements and media opinion pieces. This watered down, amorphous term, is being used in a cynical attempt to try to get around, or to deny, the more challenging idea embodied in the ʺFreedom of Religionʺ clause of the First Amendment. The politically correct ideas of the anti-religion forces have trickled down to the street as well and are often heard in the shrill whining and the intimidating threats that are found in all manner of ‘identity politics’ polemics. Those that choose to align themselves against religious believers are not quiet anymore. They feel as though the tide is with them at this time. What does that mean for us? Well, we can expect to have our faith challenged more and more, not just from afar, but from very close to home.
None of this is new though, much to the dismay of our modern anti-religion brothers and sisters, who think that they are on the cutting edge of history. Jesus knew this phenomenon, understood its dimensions and, as usual, had the solutions. With full awareness of what was happening in his own time and what would happen in our time, he said to the Twelve he had chosen as his apostles:
ʺBehold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves. But beware of people, for they will hand you over to the courts and scourge you in their synagogues, and you will be led before governors and kings for my sake as a witness before them and the pagans.ʺ Christians are constantly taken to court today, even to the Supreme Court. We win some and we lose some. The consequences, the good, the bad, and the ugly, will make themselves known sooner or later.
These words from Jesus reveal two things; first that such things would happen, but second, that when they happen, the Spirit will work through us in our strength, even in our weakness, to witness to the truth before them all. You see, the arguments, the fears, and the angers of those who wish us to go away, are time bound and limited. That is why, in the immediate moment, they can be so dangerous. They believe only in temporal and finite things. The most finite among those things that they believe in are their ideas, for they are never more than responses to temporary realities that come and go like the dew. When an idea becomes troubling, or worse, if it becomes boring, they fly to another one that, for a time, ‘feels’ better. Or, if their ideas fail to stand up in the light of the truth, they are quite capable of lashing out in an attempt to quiet the voices of those who challenge their world. There is nothing of the eternal truths in their ideas, that is why they must shout louder, and protest more vehemently. But we are not to respond in a like manner. What does Jesus say that we should do when we are challenged?
Jesus asks us to do as he did when he was dragged before the courts of the Sanhedrin after his arrest. ʺWhen they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say. You will be given at that moment what you are to say. For it will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.ʺ Now, one could not do this so blithely if one did not already have a deep and abiding faith in the One who is telling us this. God willingly and unconditionally gives the inestimable grace of faith to those who desire it and are open to it. It is up to us to study the faith, by reading the scriptures, by understanding the traditions and their foundational wisdoms, and by prayer. Attitude is everything in this, just as much as in any other human pursuits. When we know God, when we have been touched by and have accepted the presence of Jesus in our lives and in the world, and when we are humble enough to submit our will to the will of God spoken in us through his holy Spirit, we will have no fear. We will not be intimidated by the anger or the threats of those who oppose us. ʺWhat, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31)
Jesus tells us that this will not be easy. ʺBrother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but whoever endures to the end will be saved.ʺ (Mt. 10: 21-22) Now, we may not be at this level of persecution as yet in this country, but it is happening in other places in the world right now. For, persecution for the faith can also come from those who ‘claim’ that they are doing what they do ʺin the name ofʺ their own peculiar image of God as well. For Christians in America, the worst that the anti-religion forces in our society can do right now is ridicule us and try to make us irrelevant.
But here’s a thought. A sociologist by the name of Peter Berger once remarked that ʺIf India is the most religious country and Sweden is the most secularized, then America is a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes.ʺ The truth is that the vast majority of Americans remain believers, and the secularist who govern, or who teach in the academy, for all of their presumed importance, are comparatively ʺfew.ʺ They have power at this time, but even that power is finite and ephemeral. It will not last forever. Only the saving power of God is forever.
We Christians, though, must not take that truth as a reason to ʺcoastʺ along and let God do it . He is asking us in this passage to let his Spirit work through us, here and now. Jesus is telling us here that we must be ready, willing and able to respond to those who attempt to limit, or to eliminate our religious freedom altogether, with faith, love, compassion, fearlessness, patient endurance, and intelligence. The fact is that we Christians need to know what it means to be a true Christian and we need to have the courage to live the faith that we profess, publicly, courageously, confidently, and most importantly, compassionately. Our faith demands that we respond to violence with the ʺshrewdnessʺ of Christ, who, when he had answered all of Annas, the high priest’s, questions about his disciples and his doctrine with the truth, was suddenly and violently struck by one of the temple guards. He responded by saying, ʺIf I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?ʺ (John 18: 23) In this way, without violence, Jesus has challenged the man to look inside of himself, recognize his own sin well enough to turn away from it and to never do it again.
True conversion never comes through the sword. That is only fear. Rather, it comes through the heart and the mind. And that conversion is liberating, because it is rooted in love and truth. ʺAnd the truth shall set you free.ʺ (John 8: 32) What is the truth we Christians believe? ʺGod is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.ʺ (1 John 4: 16) As Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, ʺIf God is with us, who can be against us?ʺ We don’t just say that; we believe it.
Lord, pour out your graces upon us that we might bring others to you through our humility, our love, and forgiveness. Let our Christian virtues be the challenge to all who are against us. Let them see in us the true happiness that comes from loving you and our neighbors with our whole hearts, our whole minds, our whole souls and our whole strength. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.